tragic obsessive fan Charlotte Graham reviews Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. [SPOILERS] everywhere. You’ve been warned.
Harry Potter hasn’t slept much for 20 years and it has made him sort of a dickhead. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a delicious hot mess of time travel and popular fanfiction tropes from the mid-2000s, is pretty much an advertisement for cognitive behavioural therapy and not letting children fight a war in high school.
We last left Harry and friends in the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book of the series. I always hated that epilogue; it seemed wildly unrealistic that everyone would be fine, happy, and married to their high school girlfriends, after everything they’d been through. They saw people get murdered in front of them! Voldemort had no nose! Every time Harry had a parental figure come into his life, they’d die! It was some scary shit. JK Rowling wrapped the series up with some pure, unrealistic wish fulfilment, and in this new play – written by Jack Thorne, though it says his name, JK Rowling’s, and John Tiffany’s on the cover – all her psychologically messed up chickens come home to roost. OH BOY DO THEY EVER.
In case you missed it, this book is a big deal. JK Rowling has lent her name and seal of approval to a bunch of expansions to the Harry Potter universe over the years: the upcoming spinoff film trilogy, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, theme parks, duvet covers, stuff like that. But this is the first time she’s revisited the original characters everyone fell in love with.
The news that Harry, Ron and Hermione would be brought back to life by their creator was closely followed by disappointment that it would only be on the West End stage and most of the world wouldn’t get to see it, then joy that the script was being released around the world. Cynically, you could say this is all about money, but JK Rowling is richer than God. She is currently spending her billions finding homes for eight million orphans, which is so extravagant it sounds made up but isn’t.
I don’t blame her for revisiting Harry’s story, something she swore years ago she’d never do. The woman created one of the best-loved fictional worlds of all time, millions of people adore it, and by all accounts she has boxes and boxes of extra world-building material just sitting around her house. She’s clearly not over it.
And so 19 years on from the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry is an overworked Ministry of Magic Department head and his son, Albus Severus, has a fairly hefty chip on his shoulder from feeling like he never measures up. Both of them seem clinically depressed. And strangely little has changed from the Hogwarts of Harry’s day, despite the war and like all my favourite characters dying to try and make a better world.
Both Albus Severus and his best friend, Scorpius (son of Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy) are bullied for dumb stuff like who their parents are and what they did in the war. Everyone is unrealistically obsessed with the past; school kids drop huge, clunky chunks of exposition about characters from 20 years ago that, realistically, they would only have heard of in passing (if at all). Even the fact that Voldemort, the same nose-less villain who got wiped out 20 years ago, is at the heart of the plot, is kind of wearying.
It’s a play firmly rooted in the past. At the end of the third book of the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling realised she’d written herself a problem. Hermione during the book is given a time turner, a device that allows her to attend extra classes without missing work. Later, Harry, Ron, and Hermione use it to turn back time and save a couple of people from dying, because otherwise what’s the point of introducing time travel so a 13 year-old girl can get to class on time.
But Rowling then had the issue that if people can turn back time, everyone’s going to wonder why you’re not using it to solve all the problems in all future books. She solved this by writing a scene where all the time turners get destroyed. This was smart, and explains why – at the end of book seven – they can’t go back and save all my favourite characters from the Death Eaters (and fuck her for killing Lupin, honestly). The entire plot of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child can be summed up as, “Oh whoops, wait, a time turner! We found one!” It’s totally self-indulgent. Shenanigans ensue.
The play is for people like me, people who were adolescent obsessives of Harry Potter, probably dipped their toe into fandom at some point, and are now grown up but willing to take it for a spin one last time. People who haven’t read Harry Potter, when writing about the phenomenon, rely on these glazed phrases about the series creating wholesome, magical memories for millions of children.
And it was sort of like that, but not really. These are mine: realising I’d never get my Hogwarts letter and actually crying. Furiously reading, at 13, every fanfiction I could get my hands on about Harry and Draco boning. Finishing Order of the Phoenix in bed, late at night, a few weeks after my mother died, and running down the hall to my little sister’s room because she read slightly slower than me and I didn’t want her to be by herself when she read the bit where Sirius gets killed. Being 14 and having Confusing Feelings about Remus Lupin. Still drunk and wearing a cocktail dress after the university law ball, finishing the final book and crying makeup down my face (don’t even remember how I got rid of the guy who took me to the law ball).
For a bit, I was a staff writer for the world’s most visited Harry Potter fan site, which still churns out original articles twice a day to meet the huge demand for it, a decade after the last book’s release. I wrote a story about dating like the Harry Potter characters that had more readers than probably every piece of my nine years of current events journalism put together. I tried to pretend, waiting for my review copy to show up, that I was too cool for this now. Then I had a little cry. When my friend Tracey arrived at my house with the book, we shared a wild, feral grin, and I was 14 all over again. Hours later, I was rubbing water on my eyes so I could stay up and keep reading, because I am old now and a bad fan.
The canon purists’ heads must be flying clean off with this play. It’s not actually written by Rowling, so she can still claim she left Harry alone. But her name is in big writing on the cover, so she can’t have it both ways. It’s actually written by Jack Thorne, of Skins fame. In one sense, the play does exactly what it’s meant to. It’s a romp around past favourite characters and settings, with snappy, witty retorts that read like a mashup of The West Wing and Gilmore Girls (someone somewhere has written that fic). When it works, the best it gets is fun wish fulfilment.
When it doesn’t – well, it’s not boring or bad; the script speeds along. But at its worst, you sort of wish JK Rowling had just left it alone, let people kept reimagining her universe if they wanted (she’s always been chill about that), and not stamped her “this is official” mark on any one version.
A couple of the characters are finely drawn, well-developed. Hermione, now Minister of Magic, is a badass, and Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius is a sassy, goofy foil to Albus Severus, who is so sad he should probably be prescribed something. On the other hand, Ron as an adult is the worst parts of his teenage self mixed with David Brent from The Office. “Without wishing to blow my own trumpet – I am probably the most chilled out of all of us,” he says, at one point. Severus Snape, the perpetually angry and greasy one played by Alan Rickman in the movies (in which he dies, but hey, time travel!) is now the sort of guy who, according to the stage directions, “softly smiles.” This is in response to being called someone’s “light in the darkness”, in a non-ironic way that does not refer to an oncoming train. Draco Malfoy is quite nice now, and he and Harry eventually make friends (and probably bone offstage). This would’ve excited me at 14, but it seems, now, like cheap fan-service.
Probably the worst character of all is a new creation, Delphi, taken straight from the kind of fanfiction with Evanescence-lyric titles that used to be popular hate-reading in the mid 2000s. Voldemort’s daughter (yes, Voldemort of the missing nose and barely human form had sex with one of his followers during the original children’s book series, keep up) is a silver-haired bad girl with a tattoo. She probably wears a lot of fishnet stockings and eyeliner and listens to My Chemical Romance. It’s only funny if you imagine Thorne wrote her to take the piss (and that Rowling secretly put in a lot of hours on Fanfiction.net over the years, cry-laughing and pouring herself more wine), otherwise it’s terrible.
There was a lot of speculation before The Cursed Child came out about whether dumb Millennials would even be able to read a play. Would we know what direction the words went in? Etc. Obviously, it was always going to be a different reading experience. But the absence of JK Rowling’s rich, descriptive prose – which made Harry Potter great – really makes itself felt, and the lack of description of new characters and locations leads to patching imaginings of scenes. We have seven books of description of Hogwarts’ Great Hall, for instance, plus eight movies of scenes set in it, so your imagination is pretty well primed for that.
On the other hand, Albus Severus’ bedroom is somewhere we’ve never seen or had described before, so you imagine yourself back in a theatre with a bit of a bump. The stage directions make being unable to see the play performed even more frustrating. How am I meant to imagine the bookcase suddenly “reaching out and grasping” a character? Similarly, unintentionally hilarious stage directions such as, “They have their souls sucked from them. And it is terrifying,” “He dies immediately,” and “This is almost a Spartacus moment,” try to straddle being useful in a theatrical sense while also explaining the action to those following along at home, with mixed results.
And of course, there’s the copious time travel that makes the plot tick, which reviewers have assured, is done well in the theatre, but is described in the stage directions in the Adams and Gaiman-esque way: “Time stops. And then it turns over, thinks for a bit, and begins spooling backwards, slow at first…” This is hard to fathom. With all the magic in the stage directions, you’re in the meta position of imagining it as a reader while also trying to imagine how they do it onstage. Given how much of the plot involves characters being grabbed by bookcases and magically, instantly turning into other people in front of the audience, the script also ensures it’s not going to be a high school stage production favourite ever, except at maybe St Cuth’s or King’s.
Harry admits, at one point in the script, that he is not OK. I felt for him. I also think I might have forgotten, in the rosy glow of nostalgia, that I found him a bit annoying in the original series. There was that one book where he TALKED IN CAPSLOCK ALL THE TIME BECAUSE HE WAS VERY ANGRY AND SAD, and I get it. He’s had a hard life. But I finished the book just as concerned for everyone’s welfare as I was at the start (actually, to be totally honest, I was so tired when I finished the book it kept sort of falling out of my hands and when I woke up this morning I couldn’t remember how it ended and had to go back and check. It’s been a long time since the prime of my fandom days). Harry and his son, Albus Severus, kind of make up at the end. They don’t hold hands through a cat flap, though I would’ve enjoyed that. Harry takes his son on a daddy date to a cemetery like the complete loose unit he is, to visit the grave of Cedric, whose death he still feels guilty about. And so it’s left on sort of an upward-swinging note but I can’t help but wish Harry would stop taking his weird kid to graveyards and find a good therapist.
Also, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, that JK Rowling leaves it there. Enough.